The slow-cooked goat at Waamo in the Somali mall in east Phoenix has been roughly chopped, with some pieces sticking to knobs or lengths of bone. A mound of goat hunks rises beside a plate of yellow rice. The meat is rich and tender. Slivers of onion, peppers, and a simple side salad break up bites of the deeply mineral, faintly gamey goat.
“If you’re going to invite somebody in your home in Somalia, you cook goat,” says Basheir Elmi, owner and host of Waamo.
Elmi, like many people from Somalia, loves goat. Goat is Somalia’s most popular meat (along with sheep). When I sat down at Waamo, Elmi walked over to my booth, lifted his eyeglasses onto his bald head, and explained his menu’s abundance of Somali, Eritrean, Ethiopian, and Mediterranean specialties. I asked him his favorite. His reply: “Goat.”
Reader, we now arrive to a critical juncture. What do I mean by this?
I don’t know anything about Somali food.
There’s a strange tendency among people who write about food to assume an omniscient Godlike persona, to pretend they know everything about everything. They know how native Andeans brew pulque, how fishermen cook cod in Saskatchewan, and at what temperature Mongolian nomads sip koumiss. Right.
The number of world cuisines is indefinable and uncountable. All are in a constant state of flux; many are rapidly evolving with the proliferation of the internet; and most overlap with other cuisines in ways that makes drawing boundaries futile. The world is vast and complicated. Nobody could possibly know everything.
Luckily, people love to talk about what they cook.
Luckily, we live in an era of near-infinite academic resources.
How do I write a story about the food of Somalia, a country that I unfairly associate predominantly with Black Hawk Down and pirates? I live near a library that lets me check out 30 books at once. One of my graduate schools forgot to turn off my database access. There are many ways to learn.
Somalia is a V-shaped country on the actual horn of Africa. It has a long coastline, but fish isn’t really consumed inland, as refrigeration is limited. Meat is very popular. It’s served with rice, injera (flat, fermented Ethiopian “bread”), and even spaghetti (Somalia has a history of European colonization).
Tea is the main beverage, with black varietals from Sri Lanka and India preferred. The brewing typically happens in a large pot, into which heady spices go, the goal being a dusky and disarmingly sweet tea. Elmi’s is both. He dials up flavor with ginger, cinnamon, cardamon, and lemon. He serves the sugary brew cold.
Like most meat in Somalia, a nation of predominantly Sunni Muslims, Elmi’s goat is halal. For his signature goat dish, he cooks “everything except the neck and head.”
Some 15 to 20 pounds of goat braise away in a pot. Salt, pepper, and green pepper are the dominant additions to the braising liquid (water). Elmi adds green pepper by coring out the cone-shaped seedy mass, and floating this white, pithy interior part of the nightshade in the cooking water.
Elmi recalls oven-roasted goat from restaurants in Somalia, waxing about meat that was “falling apart” when it reached his table. He came to the U.S. in the 1980s. Some pieces of his goat have that melting texture, some don’t. With various parts of the animal in the mix, each bite is different.
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Look for the marrow inside split bones. Slurping it brings a rush of intense flavor.
The goat is great for that flavor, a window into a far part of the world. It also wicks flavor from the vibes of the restaurant. Elmi, who after expounding on the menu will lovingly explain how he makes coffee and tea, is a peerless host. You won’t likely find this kind of sincere hospitality in a high-end restaurant.
Anyway, if you’re over in Waamo’s neighborhood, stop on in. I'd love to hear from readers about some of Elmi’s other specialties. Ping me at email@example.com. And yes, I am enlisting you in my education on Somali food.
Waamo, 5050 East McDowell Road, 602-244-1206
Every day 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.